Why all the flowers go

Another vigil, another clean sweep of the flowers and candles. Seventeen months after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, we’re used to it. It would be astonishing if, sooner or later, the flowers and candles left at the Great Siege memorial after last night’s vigil are not removed on government orders.

But why does it happen? Something about the usual explanation doesn’t convince me.

I’m not referring to the government’s explanation. No one believes that everything’s swept away to save the Great Siege monument from damage. There’s no evidence that any damage ever took place.

Not even Labour supporters believe the government. The removal of the flowers and candles is applauded because of animosity towards Caruana Galizia, not love of conservation. So much is clear from the social media posts and the occasional hostile treatment of people laying flowers during the day.

The government’s critics have their own explanation. They accuse it of wanting to erase the memory of Caruana Galizia, perhaps of the assassination itself. I don’t think that explains everything.

Yes, the assassination has damaged the government’s reputation. It has shifted the balance of opinion in the European Parliament. Even experienced financial services practitioners have expressed the view that, from their own industry’s perspective, the case needs to be satisfactorily closed.

The government knows all this. It’s also clued up enough to realise that every time it has the flowers swept away, it attracts publicity in Malta and abroad. It keeps alive a story it would like to go away. It’s acting in a manner that brings about the opposite of what it wants.

In October, as the first anniversary approached, anyone as media conscious as this government would have known that the eyes of the Euro-American media would be upon Malta. And yet that is when the government went into hyper-sweeping mode, even literally covering up the monument.

Why do something so counterproductive from its own point of view? The government’s actions have transformed the vigils from events that commemorate a one-off assassination into a case of continual unwarranted restriction of free expression.

I believe the government is making forced errors. It’s embarking on actions it would rather not perform. It does so not because it wants to clamp down on the protestors but because it wants to prevent its supporters from taking matters in their own hands.

It doesn’t need to imagine the consequences if that happens. We’ve had more than one glimpse of the ugliness and violence that can erupt in incidents that have already taken place. If the government didn’t clear away the candles and flowers quickly, there would be many more such incidents, and they would be worse.

Try to see it from such Labour supporters’ point of view. For decades, they were told by Labour’s media that Caruana Galizia was the great Satan – that something had to be done about her, that everyone including all authorities had to distance themselves from her, that she should be condemned. Now her image is honoured in one of the most prestigious spaces of authority in the capital. And they’re supposed to swallow that?

You cannot drum up hostility over many years without risking that it can explode without control. Labour knows this only too well. Some 40 years ago, it lost its control over some of its violent elements.

Let’s be clear. I’m not saying Labour is acting responsibly. There’s nothing responsible about preferring to restrict freedom of expression instead of telling its supporters that the flowers stay because civic spaces belong to everyone, irrespective of who’s in government.

If I’m right, Labour’s burden is heavier. Every time it clears away the flowers, it shows it’s aware of how, thanks to its rhetoric, violence can easily break out. Every time it clears the candles, it acknowledges the tinder box of its own creation.

Nor is this a problem having to do only with an event that lies in the past and that might, with time, fade away.

For some time, the government’s apologists have repeated the canard that the problem with Caruana Galizia was not her investigations but her over-the-top invective. That’s what lies behind the hostility. Well, this last week burst that balloon.

The Shift News editor, Caroline Muscat, conducts investigations; she doesn’t write social commentary, let alone invective. But on social media, she has been said to be another witch like Caruana Galizia – with the inevitable quip that perhaps she deserves a similar end.

Everyone needs to take responsibility for what they say. But that doesn’t absolve the politicians, strategists and activists who say things that are within the limits of the law, while being aware they can drum up hostility that breaks out of control. You can’t blow the dog-whistle and then blame the Rottweilers.

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